Peace Plan: From a life on the streets of Toronto to a spot in law school, Mark Persaud is attacking the biggest challenge Of his life the only way he knows how: With everything he’s got.
By Sheila Dropkin
If someone were to make a film about Mark Persaud’s life, although the story would resemble the American Dream, the star would be pure north.
Born and raised in Georgetown, Guyana, into an upper-middle-class family of East Indian heritage, Persaud bristles when he’s called anything other than Canadian. Fleeing political and civic unrest and probable detention for his student activism in his native land, he arrived in Canada in 1983 as a 22-year-old refugee. Once he decided to stay in the country permanently, though never denying his roots, Persaud made a determined effort to become fully integrated into Canadian society, an approach he advocates for other immigrants and refugees.
A former prosecutor with the Department of Justice, he has spent his entire career in public service, and also served as counsel to the RCMP. Persaud is now president and CEO of the Canadian International Peace Project (CIPP), which he established in reaction to 9/11. “It [the destruction by terrorists of the Twin Towers] affected me in aa personal way,” he says. “My sister had to flee from the site. Friends and one family member perished. It made me realize how fragile and vulnerable we are. We in Canada are very blessed that we have not experienced the ravages of conflict and fissures of society like other countries. We can’t afford to be complacent. It obligatory that all of us work together to not only preserve, but to enhance what we have.
“CIPP was formed to get people from different backgrounds to embrace the philosophy that we are obliged to work together to develop civil society and social cohesion or we will fall apart.”
The CIPP headquarters is located in the North York region of Toronto in a sprawling low-rise housing other offices and businesses. The energy and intensity Persaud exudes belies the belief that someone of his short stature is bound to move slowly. The composition of the staff adheres to the organization’s principles – director of operations Amina Patel is an American married to a CANADIAN; Ebyan Farah, a Somali Canadian, is director of the Jewish-Somali Mentorship Project; Kelly Merrill is director of market research; Asha Osman provides administrative support; Jacob Morgan, whose father, Ed, was president of Canadian Jewish Congress, and Laura Fraser are summer interns.
Persaud studied political science at York University and earned his law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto; he also studied urban community economic development at the Center for Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard. The long-time political organizer for both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties is, according to the Hon. Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, for whom Persaud served as a special adviser, “the very model of a successful immigrant to Canada” who “has made Canada a better place to live for everyone.”
To say the least, Persaud’s life in Canada did not have a happy – or easy – start. He arrived with next to nothing and had no contracts or support system. The Guyanese $200 ($80 Canadian), the maximum he was permitted to take from Guyana, didn’t last long and he was prohibited by law from working. And he certainly wasn’t prepared for the cold Canadian winter or the high cost of living in Toronto. “I would go to the malls during the day,” he explains, adding that he mostly slept on the streets. “One night, I was so cold that I walked up to the small and crowded fourth-floor storage room of a full shelter and tried to sleep standing up. Eventually, someone who saw me standing in the Spadina and College [Streets] area, shivering in my two shirts, spring coat, and leaky shoes, suggested that I go to the Scott Mission, where they’d give me some warm clothes. I swallowed my pride and went. There I met Eileen Brown, a counselor and a wonderful, wonderful woman. She became like my second mother.
“I was too proud to eat in the soup kitchen as all single men are required to do,” he adds. “She broke policy and brought me some food and found me a place to live in a house run by the Mission. This was the best start I could get. I still had a spark in my eyes and realized that there was hope for me. She saved my life.”
With her assistance, he became a volunteer with the United Church of Canada’s refugee services project for which he helped set up a relief program and a transition home that provided shelter, food, legal counsel, and social assistance for refugees. “Many people who come as refugees are already traumatized,” Persaud says. “Putting them into homeless shelters further traumatizes them.” He worked with the church for five years and then went on to complete his education.